By Robert Darcy
Forty inspectors from the International Transport Workers Federation of Australia will inspect foreign ships entering Australian ports next week. The blitz is part of an ITF Asia Pacific week of action against the exploitation of Third World seafarers on "flag of convenience" vessels.
Unlike national flag fleets, "flag of convenience" vessels are registered in one country, owned in another, managed in a third and crewed in a fourth. Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) national secretary John Coombs said, "Shipowners are recruiting crews through manning agents from labour hire countries like Indonesia, the Philippines or Burma, paying them a pittance and using intimidation to have them sign falsified wage records".
The ITF inspectors will ensure that crews are being paid a living wage and working fair conditions in accordance with their contracts of employment.
The campaign against the "ships of shame" comes soon after a victory by MUA seafarers on the Australian Enterprise. In August, Australian National Line announced that the ship would be sold, reneging on a written commitment made to the MUA by ANL's parent company, Compagnie Generale Maritime. MUA seafarers held a sit-in to save their jobs.
On September 9, ANL won a Federal Court injunction and the MUA faced massive fines. The union agreed not to direct its members to continue their protest, but crew on the Enterprise each decided against sailing the vessel.
In response, ANL began Federal Court action under the Trade Practices Act. Despite the threat of fines and prison sentences, the seafarers held their ground, and ANL eventually dropped all litigation, promised to keep the Enterprise for another year and indemnified the MUA and its members against any costs claims.
The Howard government has been working to deregulate the shipping industry, thereby wiping out the Australian shipping fleet. Its first step was to remove financial subsidies to Australian-flagged vessels with Australian crews. International research shows that Australian seafarers are among the best trained in the world, but with the subsidies gone, shipping bosses are keen to re-flag under Third World wages and conditions.
This threat makes clear the need for Australian workers to fight both to protect their own wages and conditions and to assist workers' struggles in other countries in the region.